John McCauley steps out of the makeshift fitting room in the corner of a tiny East Nashville boutique. He’s wearing a rather loud velour suit jacket and pants covered in a vertical-stripe pattern – crimson, gold, army green and grey-blue, among other colors – plus a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and a pair of Chuck Taylors.
“So you like it?” asks the tailor, Poni Silver, who is making the suit, and two others, for McCauley to wear on tour this fall.
McCauley grins at his reflection in the mirror, and a gold filling in his mouth briefly glints in the light. He looks ridiculous, and he knows it.
McCauley and his band, Deer Tick, are no strangers to making spectacles of themselves onstage, but as the roots-rock band gears up to release their fifth album, Negativity, the barely controlled bedlam of their live show is getting mixed with a touch of old-time showmanship.
This new mindset is due in no small part to some changes in the band members’ personal lives, most notably McCauley, who has temporarily sworn off alcohol and nearly all drugs – with the exception of acid – after more than a decade of heavy partying.
“We’re all kind of transforming right now. Our personal lives are probably at an all-time high. We’re definitely not as messed-up as we used to be,” he says.
Earlier in the day at a neighborhood tavern, you almost don’t notice McCauley at first sitting at the bar. His once long, scraggly mass of blond hair is cut short and combed into a part, and he’s grown his mustache out into a neatly trimmed beard. He’s reflective and candid, but speaks carefully, sometimes taking long pauses between sentences. When the time comes to get drinks, he orders an O’Douls, a nonalcoholic beer.
“The new album just seems so involved to perform live that I definitely need some clarity for it,” he says. “We were really ambitious making the album, so in order to perform it properly, I need to be in a good headspace.”
Negativity returns Deer Tick to more familiar territory after the band’s previous record, the raw, freewheeling Divine Providence. Though Negativity was recorded before McCauley got sober, it nevertheless features some of his most lucid, self-assured songwriting. The album also sees Deer Tick continuing their evolution from a McCauley solo project into a fully collaborative unit: drummer Dennis Ryan and guitarist Ian O’Neil both contributed songs that are among its highlights.
The recording process for Negativity stood in marked contrast to that for Divine Providence, for which Deer Tick entered the studio without much finished material and wrote most of the songs on the spot.
“The band was kind of a mess by the time we went in to record it,” McCauley says. “It’s not a very delicate album. We did the best we could with the material we had at the moment.”
For Negativity, producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, who McCauley first worked with in the side project Diamond Rugs, suggested that Deer Tick focus on honing their best material, rather than recording every one of their new songs. His influence shines through in the album’s tight arrangements and full-bodied sonics, not to mention a number of instrumental flourishes that run the gamut from a classical piano passage in “The Dream’s In The Ditch” to a lengthy blues guitar solo in “Trash.”
“Most songs, they turned out almost completely opposite of how I would have imagined, but,” McCauley pauses for a second, “[Berlin] was right. When I try to think back on how I envisioned these songs would go, my ideas were just not as good. Not as melodic, not as … I don’t want to say it, but poppy. It’s still kind of a dark and twisted record, but it’s just catchy.”
Case in point: album opener “The Rock,” a woozy, aching breakup ballad that, midway through, starts to build to an unexpectedly triumphant climax with the help of a blaring horn section. The possible new directions hinted at by Negativity’s 12 tracks seem to bode well for Deer Tick’s long-term viability as a band.
“After we made this record, I think any doubts we had about the band disappeared,” he says.